ALLEN PARK — After three weeks of training camp, and a whole lot of hitting other guys in Honolulu blue — especially if your name is Amon-Ra St. Brown — the Detroit Lions are finally ready to open the preseason on Friday night against the Buffalo Bills.
Now seems like as good of a time as any to open up the mailbag. As always, my deepest gratitude to everyone who sent in questions. We’ll do it again next week, and questions can be tweeted here or emailed to [email protected].
Enough jibberjabber. Let’s go.
Q: Outside of OL, what position group has looked strongest so far in camp? — @Alfred0Sauced0
A: You don’t have to look far. There is so damn much to like about T.J. Hockenson, a former first-round pick, and Darren Fells lining up next to an offensive front that also features three more first-round picks. Hockenson might be having the best summer of anyone in Allen Park, and has been Jared Goff’s No. 1 target in the passing game. He was a Pro Bowler last year with Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones and Danny Amendola on the field, and he might catch 1,000 footballs now that all those guys have moved on.
Don’t underestimate Fells either, a really good blocker who has sure hands when he’s involved in the passing game. He’s a massive target too.
There are still questions about who will round out the tight end rotation, and that battle remains far from settled. But those top two guys have a chance to be one of the better tandems in the league, given their skill level and import to an offense that wants to impose its physicality on defenses this season.
Q: Which wide receiver has look the best in camp? — @Mahoney_Garritt
A: Well tight end T.J. Hockenson has been the best target in camp, and it’s not close. He’s so big and runs so well that he’s just a nightmare matchup for the defense, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him lead Detroit in targets this season.
But as far as wide receivers go, Tyrell Williams will probably be the No. 1. He’s certainly the best deep threat in camp. But snap to snap, Amon-Ra St. Brown has been the more consistent target. He’s a physical, hard-nosed receiver, and I think that will fit well in this offense, which is going to run the ball a lot and pepper the football into the short and intermediate areas of the field. The Lions have also been impressed with his handle on the slot for such a young guy, understanding what defenses are trying to do and exploit the empty spaces.
Betting on a rookie is always a perilous endeavor, and a 112th overall pick at that. But St. Brown hasn’t looked like a 112th overall pick in camp. I think you’re going to see a lot of him this fall, and if camp is any indication, Goff is going to lean on him a lot.
Q: Most encouraging thing you’ve seen that might surprise us and most disappointing thing? — @bebetterbegood1
A: Nothing and no one has had a more encouraging camp than T.J. Hockenson. I’ve already prattled on about him, so no need to rehash that here. But stars are born at the intersection of talent and opportunity, and Hockenson has both going for him now that all of last year’s starting receivers are out. If he stays healthy, I think he’s going to have a monster season.
As far as most disappointing, we still haven’t seen much from D’Andre Swift. The running back has suited up for practice most days, but has been held out of so much of the team stuff while dealing with what Dan Campbell has described as a sore groin. It’s entirely possible the team is just being proactive with the health of a good player who was banged up last year and figures to take a beating while leading that rotation this year, but I can only go by what we see, and we just haven’t seen very much from him yet.
Just to underscore the point: No reason to be alarmed yet, because Swift doesn’t need much work to be ready for the season and still has a long time to get it in. But big things are expected from him this season, and we just haven’t seen it. Not yet.
Q: Now that you’ve seen Goff in action, what are your expectations for him and the team this season? — @stannahmontana1
A: He’s not Matthew Stafford, that’s for sure. This is my ninth training camp in Allen Park, and I’m just so used to seeing consistent quarterback play all over the field in the summer. That hasn’t been the case with Goff.
Make no mistake, he throws a pretty ball. He has good arm strength and mechanics too. It’s easy to see why he once was the No. 1 overall pick. But he also makes more mistakes than Stafford did, and definitely doesn’t push the ball down the field like Stafford did.
That said, Jared Goff also doesn’t have Matthew Stafford’s receivers either. Tyrell Williams, Breshad Perriman and Amon-Ra St. Brown look like the starters right now, and none of those guys would have started on last year’s team. The downgrade at receiver is impossible to miss. And with Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye playing better, Goff just hasn’t had many open guys to throw to down the field. It’s not all on him.
The bottom line: Due to personnel and scheme, expect to see more of a game-manager kind of offense. I know that has kind of a negative connotation, and it can certainly become a negative thing if the deep ball doesn’t get going at some point to keep defenses honest. But all I mean right now is we’re seeing a lot of checkdowns to the short field in camp, and that might not be the worst approach given what the Lions have to work with in the passing game.
I think they’re going to really try to ride the running game this year, which has two good players in the backfield — not nearly enough is being said about Jamaal Williams — running behind what should be one of the best offensive lines in the league.
The hope is the Lions will punish teams on the ground, then beat them over the top when they start cheating into the box. Perhaps it’ll work, perhaps it won’t, but it’s certainly a deviation from past years.
Q: Can Jack Fox kick field goals? — @CraigGallagher
A: I’ve never seen him try it. But if you saw Jack Fox punting when practice was moved indoors on Monday, you’d believe he could turn water into wine and make a blind man see. That guy’s right leg looks like it was kissed by Jesus himself. He literally squeezed a football through the 1 foot of space or so between the roof and a beam right below it. He also ripped a punt about 80 yards through the air. I refuse to believe he’s entirely human.
Q: Royal Rumble between all the Lions coaching staff, who’s last man standing? — @snacksefron
A: At the risk of being unoriginal, I’m not betting against Dan Campbell. He was listed at 6-foot-5 and 265 pounds as a player, and I don’t think he’s far off these days. He’s still a mountain of a man, and has already professed his predilection for light cannibalism. Bet against him at your own peril.
Q: Haven’t heard as much praise for Alim McNeil in the second half of camp as we did in the first. Was he worse towards the later portion of camp or was it just more of the same and newer storylines just emerged? — @steelcrush7
A: Let me assure you, McNeill continues to impress. Dare I say, he’s been one of the best defenders in camp, along with Romeo Okwara and Jeff Okudah.
The Lions were thrilled when the big defensive tackle fell to them in the third round, and the Eagles — lurking in the on-deck circle when Detroit made that pick — were obviously upset to have lost out on him. Clearly, there is talent there. But I think he’s been even better than Detroit expected.
At 6-foot-2 and 320 pounds, he’s a massive man on the nose. But he just moves so well too. You don’t get the nickname “Twinkle Toes” or “The Dancing Bear” at 320 pounds by mistake, you know? And there’s a reason he continues to rep with the first team throughout camp.
“He’s better than I thought when we drafted him, to be honest,” defensive line coach Todd Wash said just this week. “I think we would all say that. We knew he was a heck of a run defender. He’s stout at the point. But he’s a lot better athlete than he showed on tape, which for us was unbelievable. He’s not just an A-gap to A-gap player. So if he can continue to get better, we got to keep a thumb on him and I think he can be an exceptional nose guard in this league in time. Yup.
“His athletic ability. His ability to stay square, play lateral to the line of scrimmage. You know, bigger guys, sometimes these zone schemes give them issues. But Alim, that’s not an issue. He’s got great lateral movement.”
There are few players I’m more intrigued to see this season than McNeill, especially after having to watch whatever Matt Patricia rolled out there the last few years on the interior of that defensive line. There isn’t enough free food in the world to make that pain go away. (I think.)
Q: You always give great restaurant recommendations (the chicken sandwich at IMA was outstanding), so any new spots in detroit I should check out? — mik
A: There are a few I could name, but for the sake of brevity, just go check out Coriander and thank me later. They technically opened last year in this old abandoned marina along the canals in the Jefferson-Chalmers district, but have built out their space more fully this year. The waterside vibes are great — you can boat or kayak right up to the joint if you like — and so is the food and drink. It’s a small operation in the best way possible, just a couple of local Detroiters making hay in the city and sourcing most of their ingredients here too. I highly recommend the fish sandwich, the best I’ve had in Detroit.
Q: How many more years are Lions allowed to dodge Hard Knocks? Dallas has had 3 effing seasons. — @jeffreyharley
A: With every Dan Campbell press conference, I become more convinced the Lions will be a favorite for “Hard Knocks” next year if they don’t make the playoffs. Because that guy just seems made for TV.
(Playoff teams can’t be compelled to do the show.)
Q: Was it coaching/scheme that caused our defense to be so hideous last year or was it our personnel? Based on what you’ve seen so far is the D going to be significantly better? — @cmac810
A: You don’t allow the second-most points in NFL history without all of the above going wrong, you know? The Lions weren’t just bad on defense, but historically so. They nearly set the franchise record for points and yards allowed in a season in 2019, then actually broke both marks last year. The scheme was bad, the players were bad in that scheme, and the coaching was too bad to make the necessary adjustments. That wore down players too, and cratered their confidence. You can’t throw a stone in Allen Park without hitting someone who thinks guys were playing so slowly last year because of a lack of confidence and too much confusion within the scheme.
This year, the defense looks much improved in camp. It really does. They’re blitzing again, which is applying pressure on the quarterback. And that’s helping the back end, where Jeff Okudah looks like a different human being and Amani Oruwariye has continued his development.
Q: How much in game input will Campbell have on play calling? — @gavin3000
A: All head coaches have a lot of influence on the playcalling, whether they’re calling the plays or not. They’re responsible for game plans and other macro strategies, which of course affects what types of plays are called. The head coach also makes decisions like when to go for it on fourth down, fake a punt, etc.
That said, Campbell has never been a coordinator and has never called plays, and I suspect he won’t micromanage Anthony Lynn or Aaron Glenn on Sundays either.
Q: Haven’t heard much about Alex Anzalone. Take a stab at the starting backers and backups? Second level has been a weakness the last few years, especially on passing downs. — @nytronate
A: Anzalone and Jamie Collins have repped consistently as the inside linebackers on the first team, with Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara bookending them on the outside. Anzalone hasn’t done much to stand out to me, good or bad, and given how the linebackers played last season, that seems like an improvement.
There’s a lot to be sorted out on the bench, but don’t be surprised if former Wayne State linebacker Anthony Pittman makes the cut. He’s made a lot of plays in camp and drawn unprompted praise from Dan Campbell and Aaron Glenn. The team is also high on Derrick Barnes, a fourth-round pick, although he’s missed so much of camp it’s hard to predict how he fits into the defense right now. Don’t sleep on Shaun Dion Hamilton either.
On the outside, Julian Okwara looks like the best guy coming off the bench, and Austin Bryant has come on strong in recent days as well, including sacking quarterbacks three times on Tuesday.
Q: If you could pick one player that’ll be your dark horse to win a roster spot, who would it be? — @BradTheLionsFan
A: As mentioned above, Anthony Pittman is a nice darkhorse candidate. Not a household name by any measure, but there are still bench jobs up for grabs at inside linebacker and he’s popped with a few plays, including an interception of Jared Goff.
Q: Are there any coaches or other non-player personnel leftover from last year who seem to have an improved mindset since the coaching change. Put more bluntly, “…happy the team took out the trash?” — @ericzaneshow
A: How about right at the top of the organization? I know Sheila Ford Hamp was frustrated with the leadership style of the previous regime. Players were unhappy, many coaches were unhappy, and while things got better over time — due in part to leadership style changes encouraged by Hamp — things were still pretty bad. Of course, losing will make a lot of folks unhappy too. But Hamp wanted a more positive and inclusive culture, and she was never going to get it with Matt Patricia mother bleeping everyone and their mother. Now things are very different in Detroit, the mood is up, players are happy, Dan Campbell and Brad Holmes are helming a more collaborative approach to this football thing, and I guarantee you ownership is loving it all.
Q: Did Prater ask for a chance to play for a contender, or was it the Lions’ decision to part ways (and if so, why?) — @kyle_warwick
A: The Matt Prater situation is one of the great mysteries of what has otherwise been a good offseason that gave Detroit a big push in the right direction.
Prater did have some struggles last season, sure, and at his age, there must be some concern Father Time is catching up to him. But drop by training camp one of these days, and you’ll see a kicking situation that is demonstrably worse without him. Randy Bullock has been OK on the gimmes, but struggled badly from beyond 40 yards. They just signed Zane Gonzalez this week to compete with him for the starting job — you know, the guy Arizona just signed Prater to replace.
The Lions have been spoiled with excellent field-goal kicking for so many years, outside of that blip to open the season in 2014. I fear we may be headed for some more misadventures in the kicking game in 2021.
Q: Any year two players showing progress? — @bigwheel_194
A: Jeff Okudah was slipping and sliding all over the field trying to cover Kenny Golladay and Marvin Jones at this time last year. Now he’s sticking in coverage all over the field, and you simply can’t understate just how much better and more comfortable — and more confident — he’s looked.
Then again, Golladay and Jones aren’t in camp anymore either. Tyrell Williams and Breshad Perriman are the top outside guys, neither of whom would have even started for this team last year. I think that’s important context to consider, and it makes it difficult to assess just how far Okudah’s come. It’s a little bit of an apples and oranges comparison, you know? Still, given just how bad Okudah looked last season, it’s encouraging to see him look this good.
Q: Would Ben Raven beat you up? Hypothetically? — @tribnic
A: Ben’s about 8-foot-2, has 3 feet of fur protecting his jaw, and is powered by weird gas station drinks that were designed in some lab in Belarus or whatever. So hypothetically or not, I’m not picking a fight with that guy.